Monday, 8 December 2014

Typhoon Hagupit diary: into the eye of the storm

Carmela, 8, holds her brother Joshua as they wait for Typhoon Hagupit to pass
© UNICEF/UNI175840/Samson
Sunday 7 December – Yesterday I arrived in Manila, the Philippines, a day or two ahead of Typhoon Hagupit (known locally as Ruby). Looking out to sea from UNICEF’s office on the 30th floor of RCBC Plaza, there’s no sign yet of the typhoon. There’s even a narrow band of sunlight on the horizon. But everyone knows that it’s coming.

The typhoon made landfall last night in Dolores, Eastern Samar, on the eastern edge of the Philippines. Although it has weakened from a Category 5 to 3 typhoon, it could still cause major devastation, particularly as it crosses areas still recovering from Typhoon Haiyan last year, or if it hits the densely populated capital Manila (now looking unlikely).

The storm is now moving very slowly, at just 15 km/hour, but the wind speed within the spiral of the typhoon is much faster, at around 205 km/hour. This is not good news – the slower the storm moves, the more time it has to wreck buildings and flood streets. There is also a risk of a storm surge as the typhoon churns up the sea, with waves that could reach up to four meters. Around 40 million people remain in the path of the storm.

Our greatest worry at UNICEF was that Typhoon Hagupit would hit Tacloban, the city worst affected by Haiyan last year. People there are still rebuilding their lives and homes, with some still living in tent cities and flimsy bunkhouses. Fortunately for residents of Tacloban, the eye of the storm passed by to the north, but the city was still rocked by heavy winds and rain, causing a power outage but no reported casualties.

Men gather fallen iron sheets to start rebuilding homes on Sunday morning
© UNICEF Philippines/2014/MWarfa
I spoke on the phone to Marianna Zaichykova, UNICEF’s emergency communication specialist in Tacloban. “It’s been raining heavily since last night with very strong winds,” she said. “It was impossible to go anywhere. We have no power and all the shops are closed. Our office building was shaking. There’s only one hotel in the whole town with electricity, so all the aid agencies are working there.”

This morning, Marianna ventured out to visit two nearby evacuation centres “People are starting to move around very cautiously, but it’s still rainy and windy,” she said. “In the centres we visited, most of the men had left to look for food or guard their houses against looting, but the women and children were still there.”

“The babies were fast asleep but children aged 3 to 6 had trouble sleeping and staying calm because of the trauma from Haiyan last year. Their parents were comforting them,” Marianna continued. “But the older kids, aged around 10, were smiling and running around. ‘The rain is gone, we want to go home,’ they said, although their mothers were more cautious. ‘We’ll go home only when we can see the sun,” one woman told me.”

Around 1,000 people took shelter in Kapangian Elementary School, Tacloban
© UNICEF/UNI175845/Bacareza
Marianna said that the situation was much better than last year. “Definitely the lessons from Haiyan have been learned,” she said. “Three days before the typhoon hit, people in coastal areas were already moving to evacuation centres and stocking up on food. The local government closed all businesses and declared a no parking zone in the city centre. This is because last year cars were flying around in the storm causing damage.”

Inevitably, there has been some damage. “A couple of buildings that escaped Haiyan have been very badly damaged this time round,” Marianna continued. “I think this is because of the different direction of the wind. But there have been no reported casualties so far in Tacloban, so we have been very lucky.”

UNICEF’s focus is now shifting to the towns of Dolores and Oras to the north of Tacloban. “We’re unloading our relief supplies so that the government can transport them to Dolores,” Marianna said. “We don’t know what the situation is there yet. Mobile phone reception is down so we can’t contact anyone. There’s only one road to get there, which is 170 km long with several bridges. If even one bridge is destroyed, we may not be able to get through.”

For Tacloban at least, it’s clear that people have been spared the worst. In a few days, they’ll be able to go back home and continue their interrupted task of recovering from Typhoon Haiyan. For much of the rest of the Philippines, however, people remain braced for the storm that is moving slowly but relentlessly westward.

Sunny in Tacloban, stormy in Manila

John Dave, 3, has a bath outside a bunkhouse in Tacloban the day after the storm
© UNICEF Philippines/2014/G Samson
Monday 8 December – Today, Typhoon Hagupit (known locally as Ruby) has been making itself known in Manila. The winds and rain that swirl around the edge of the storm arrived early and are expected to strengthen significantly overnight. Walking to the office this morning, I braced myself against both, while an empty Starbucks cup hurtled down the street towards me.

At UNICEF’s 9am emergency meeting, the news was generally good. The typhoon has weakened as it continues to sweep slowly across the Philippines. At least three people have been killed since the storm made landfall (some reports now say 21), including a boy in Samar who was hit by a falling tree, but generally the impact was not as severe as we had feared.

Having learned the lessons of Typhoon Haiyan last year, the preparations, evacuation and humanitarian response for this typhoon have all been exemplary. Still, around a million people have taken refuge in evacuation centres, and with the typhoon passing over remote areas, the true impact may not become known for several days.

A family’s belongings packed in a bicycle cart outside an evacuation centre in Tacloban
© UNICEF Philippines/2014/G Samson
We spoke by phone to Maulid Warfa, head of UNICEF’s field office in Tacloban. “It’s a warm and sunny day today in Tacloban,” he told us. “People are coming out and the shops are starting to open. The electricity is still down and the airport is closed but there have been zero casualties in Tacloban – no deaths and no injuries”

“All the evacuation centres will be cleared today,” Maulid continued. “Those people who can’t go home will move to the Astrodome. Some of the temporary bunkhouses have been damaged so we need to repair those, including fixing broken windows and restoring water. But the tent city is gone. Literally gone – the tents were blown away and we’ll never see them again.”

Maulid confirmed that UNICEF had started sending pre-positioned supplies from Tacloban to areas further north that had been harder hit by the typhoon. “Yesterday we sent two trucks to Dolores and Ores,” he said. “We sent another one this morning to Borongan closer to the affected area, with instructions to wait there until we know where it’s needed.

“The trucks are carrying water and hygiene kits, water purification units, oral rehydration salts, 6000-litre water tanks and power generators,” he added.

For UNICEF in Tacloban, the remaining issues in the coming days are rebuilding homes and psychosocial support for children. “We’ve met young children for whom this typhoon has brought back traumatic memories from Typhoon Haiyan last year,” Maulid explained. “We’ll be meeting with the government and partners shortly to see what we can do to help them.”

Aldrin Cuna (right) in the typhoon control centre at Quezon City Hall, Metro Manila
© UNICEF Philippines/2014/Andy Brown
Although Tacloban was clearly through the worst, Manila was gearing up for a seriously stormy night, with the typhoon due to pass to the south of the city. In the afternoon, I went with Rommel from UNICEF Philippines to visit the local government in Quezon City (part of Metro Manila) and see the final stage of preparations.

At Quezon City Hall, we met City Administrator Aldrin Cuna, who was in the control room with colleagues from each government department. “We’ve been waiting for Ruby to arrive tonight,” he said with a smile. “We deployed most of our boats and vehicles to flood prone areas on Saturday but we have a few left here and emergency staff on standby to go out wherever needed.”

I asked Aldrin what the City Government was doing for at-risk communities. “We’ve set up evacuation centres for people living in flood-prone areas near the river,” he replied. “These are mainly slum districts. The barangay councils are already going round asking people to move to the evacuation centres voluntarily. If it gets really bad, we may need to do a forced evacuation. Sometimes people don’t want to leave their homes and possessions, but their lives are more valuable.”

As we left, we saw emergency workers catching a few hours sleep on mats, chairs and even in stairwells. “They need to save their strength for tonight,” Aldrin said.

Elna Cirilo with Nicole, 6, and Cyrus, 5, at the evacuation centre
© UNICEF Philippines/2014/Andy Brown
From City Hall, we drove to Barangay Bagong Silangan, where an evacuation centre had been set up in a covered court on the hillside above a flood plain. It was already starting to fill up with women and children who had arrived early with a few possessions to claiming a space on the mats in the centre of the court. Barangay staff were starting to prepare food for evacuees and the Health Department had set up a small clinic to do check-ups

I spoke to 31-year-old Elna Cirilo, who had arrived with her two children Nicole, 6, and Cyrus, 5. She was eight months pregnant with her third child. “We came here to get away from danger and to be secure,” Elna said. “My husband stayed behind to guard the house, but if the flood waters rise he’ll come and join us here.”

Elna and her husband grow and sell vegetables for a living, earning around 100 pesos a day ($2.25 USD). They don’t pay rent on their slum home, but they still struggle to get by and sometimes can’t afford to send their children to school. “Our house has already flooded three times before,” Elna said. “I’m very worried but there’s nothing I can do.”

Nicole was too shy to talk to us, but Cyrus was willing to whisper a few answers to my questions into Romell’s ear. “I’m doing OK,” he said. “I’m afraid of the storm but I’m happy that my friends are here and we’ll have something to eat.”

Dr Paulino gives Elna and her children a medical check-up at the evacuation centre
© UNICEF Philippines/2014/Andy Brown
As we left the evacuation centre just after 5pm, a barangay worker was updating information on a whiteboard. This showed that there were now 77 families and 370 individuals in the evacuation centre. Outside, it was getting dark and the rain was increasingly heavy. People walked down the road under umbrellas, carrying their valuables and heading for the evacuation centre.

I caught a taxi back to my hotel in Makati, and settled in for my own long and possibly sleepless night. After writing this blog, I took a final look outside at 9pm. The rain was hammering down onto deserted city streets and the buildings opposite had disappeared into the mist. I felt lucky at least to have a bed for the night – more than the evacuees and emergency workers.

Hopefully, like in Tacloban, the sun will come back out in Manila tomorrow.

Relief and celebrations as the storm passes

Children play at an evacuation centre in a covered court in Quezon City
© UNICEF Philippines/2014/Andy Brown
Wednesday 10 December – Today the sun is shining in Manila and Typhoon Hagupit has finally exited the Philippines, leaving significantly less death and destruction than was feared. One factor in the low casualties – the latest estimate is 27, compared to over 7,000 for Haiyan last year – is the disaster risk reduction measures put in place by UNICEF, the government and partners, including early mass evacuations.

Yesterday it was a different story, with the outcome still uncertain. The storm passed Manila overnight on Monday but Tuesday morning reports were just starting to come in. Because of the stormy weather, we were operating with a ‘skeleton staff’ covering essential functions – including mine, communications – while most people stayed at home with their families.

In anticipation of floods, UNICEF Philippines had moved operations from our regular office in RCBC Plaza to the home of Representative Lotta Sylwander. This was also our chance to test our ‘business continuity’, i.e. our ability to continue working in the event of a major disaster. IT and operations staff had been at Lotta’s house the day before setting up a power generator, satellite dish and temporary work stations.

Lotta herself was up early in the morning, doing a 5:30am BBC interview at a food packing warehouse near the airport. “Packing was already in full swing with no sleep for the many police volunteers who had been up all night,” she said. “It was an impressive government emergency response to the typhoon. The food packs are mainly for the over 600,000 people who were evacuated before the typhoon made landfall. The storm is about to leave the Philippines and today we can really start assessing the damages.”

Edweliza Wagas, 21, and family at the evacuation centre
© UNICEF Philippines/2014/Andy Brown
In the afternoon, I returned to Barangay Bagong Silangan evacuation centre to see how the families we visited the day before were getting on. During the night, the population of the centre had risen to a densely-packed 229 families and 981 people. There was some overnight flooding in houses by the river, but by mid-afternoon most families had left the centre and the rest were packing up their belongings. Compared to the tension of the night before, there was a visible sense of relief.

I spoke to several of the remaining families, including Edweliza Wagas, 21, who was with her husband and children Jharone, 2, and Jhared, 3 months. “We’ve been well taken care of and the food was good,” she told me. “The sleeping conditions were OK but it was hot and crowded. My husband’s been back home to check the house. It was flooded earlier but now the water’s gone so we can go home. I’m so happy that the storm has passed.”

I also spoke to Anna Marie Almadin, who was with her mother Lily, 46. They gave me different answers to her age – Anna said she was nine, but her mother corrected her to ten. I soon realised why. “It was my birthday yesterday,” Anna Marie expained. “It was raining hard and I felt lonely and sad that we had no birthday cake. We’re going home now and I want to celebrate by going to Jolibee for dinner tonight.” She was suddenly overcome with emotion and buried her head in her mother’s chest, crying.

Birthday girl Anna Marie, now 10, at the evacuation centre
© UNICEF Philippines/2014/Andy Brown
The health centre doctor assigned to the barangay, Joselito Paulino, was pleased with how things had gone. “We’ve been here all night,” he said. “We fed people, did check-ups and gave out medication. I saw 98 patients during the storm. Most of them had acute respiratory tract infections. Some of these were existing conditions but the stormy weather made them worse. We’ll follow up with them again in three days.”

Finally, I spoke to Elna and her two children Nicole, 6, and Cyrus, 5, who I had interviewed the day before, and were the focus of my main story. They were tired but happy to be going home. “It was OK spending the night here but it was hot and crowded and I couldn’t sleep well,” Elna said. “I spoke to my husband this morning and he said the water has gone so it’s safe for us to return.” Cyrus and Nicole were also looking forward to going home and seeing their father. “I want to read a book when we get back,” Cyrus said. “I don’t mind which one, any book will do.”

Elna and her children, ready to go home after Typhoon Hagupit
© UNICEF Philippines/2014/Andy Brown

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